Things got pretty tough at the Auckland Art Gallery last year when it became clear the mayor intended to take a knife to its budget.

It is not the first time it has faced cuts. The operating budget was $12 million in 2012, the year before Rhana Devenport was appointed director. But mayor Len Brown and his successor, Phil Goff, both presided over such a steep slide, the proposed allocation for 2018 was just $6.9 million.

Barely more than half what it had been. Devenport is one of the world's great enthusiasts and she wears a pretty positive grin most of the time, but it was obvious coming into 2018 that the emotion she was really feeling was dismay.


Not, though, despair. She didn't give up. She says her bosses at the council agency Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) lobbied long and hard. So did several councillors, from left and right on the political spectrum. A thousand people made submissions about Goff's plans for the gallery's budget and according to Devenport all of them opposed the cuts. Most of all, there was a big, independently organised social media campaign.

To your list of groups who know how to use the power of Facebook, you can add art lovers. You can add Phil Goff too. In the end, he declared the gallery was "a critical asset" for the city and added $20 million over 10 years to the budget plan. Sighs of relief all round.

The gallery now receives $8.9 million for operating costs and has also introduced a door charge for out-of-town visitors. But Devenport has resigned, to return to her native Australia and become director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, in Adelaide.

"The gallery is very solid now," she told me yesterday. "I wouldn't be leaving if it wasn't."

Is that true?

No question, Rhana Devenport has been successful. She's strengthened the arts and the gallery itself in a city that's full of artistic energy but, more often than is healthy, strangely indifferent to it.

Visitor numbers are up: last year 521,402 people went through the doors, up 16 per cent on the target. They now do fundraising drives, they have a new 7000-strong membership and there's a foundation for endowments. Education programmes are strong and popular; families and new audiences are actively engaged.

The Gottfried Lindauer exhibition in 2015-16 attracted 99,000 people and was both the largest and the most popular show the gallery had presented since the rebuild and reopening in 2011.


Comparisons are apt. In its first year after reopening, the gallery attracted 618,000 people: a magnificent new building has pulling power. But attendance dropped to 441,000 in 2013, below the target of 450,000. When Devenport arrived that year, the Auckland Art Gallery was slipping backwards.

She brought a lot. A commitment to tangata whenua: to Māori artists and their work, and to Māori audiences. It wasn't the most natural thing for her – art enthusiasts came to be fondly tolerant of the way, on every formal occasion, she bravely, hopelessly, submitted her mihi to that buzzsaw Aussie twang.

But she really was committeed. She presented 18 Māori programmes last year, up from the target of 10.

Gallery directors often form strong attachments with selected artists. For Devenport it was Lisa Reihana, whom she enabled to create the extraordinary In Pursuit of Venus (infected), and then to take it to the Venice Biennale. And, as she leaves, the gallery has a retrospective of one of our greatest artists, Gordon Walters. It's a superb grace note to bow out on.

Devenport cultivated relationships. Last year's major touring show, The Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from the Tate, which was co-created by Britain's Tate Gallery and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, would not have come to Auckland were it not for the trust its curators showed in Devenport herself.

She was committed to the contemporary and the new and took special pleasure in presenting Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean and other Asian artists. She knew she was both catering to those large communities in Auckland and building cultural bridges between them and the rest of the city.

She loved that. "I will absolutely miss the demographic diversity of Auckland," she said yesterday. It's pretty white bread where she's going.

Those communities may miss her too. Yayoi Kusama's The Obliteration Room, a show for anyone who wanted to cover a room in coloured dots, took in 150,000 visitors over last summer and autumn. Two years earlier visitors revelled in the exquisite sophistication and disturbing sociology of Yang Fudong's Filmscapes. Devenport's close Shanghai connections nailed that one for Auckland, too.

"Auckland Art Gallery is on the map," she said. "At the Tate, after we did the Body show, they said, 'You tell us what you want. We'd love to curate a show for you'."

Well, okay, but will that be for Auckland Art Gallery or for Rhana Devenport in Adelaide?

"That's a good question," she said.

Who doesn't know this? If you trash the funding the good staff will leave. The director will leave. People were saying it about the Auckland Art Gallery before that budget came out last year, and then in July it became a real thing: Zara Stanhope left. Stanhope was the gallery's principal curator and head of programmes, the person Devenport relied on the most.

She still hasn't been replaced. Chris Brooks, the RFA chief executive, said yesterday they are "close", and suggested Devenport was being "quite particular".

Good on her. I asked Devenport, and she said, "Zara hasn't been easy to replace, and part of the reason for that has been the question of funding."

So what about Devenport herself? Will she be easy to replace? The answer will test Brooks' skill, that's for sure.

He thinks there will be lots of interest in the job and it would be nice to think that's true. AAG is a go-ahead gallery with a strong international reputation, it holds a New Zealand collection that rivals Te Papa's and is one of the city's top visitor destinations.

But still. The more the good people leave, the harder it gets to replace them.

So Devonport goes to Adelaide. Why? Auckland is this country's most cosmopolitan city and Adelaide is merely a second-tier provincial city. But mark this. The Adelaide gallery gets state funding of A$11.6 million, its collection is twice as big and many times more valuable and it welcomes more than 800,000 visitors per year. That's 54 per cent more than Auckland. And they're going to build a new gallery called Adelaide Contemporary.

We all get what we deserve. And lose what we don't. Right now, we need a new gallery director who will build on Rhana Devenport's work, driving up the engagements and making the gallery as exciting and popular and essential to the city as it ought to be. But do we deserve it?